I am writing to you in the context of leadership conversations that create healthy relationships as well as results-driven, accident-free workplaces. If you are experiencing a stressful workplace, accidents, fatalities or other poor business results you can change your experience by taking personal responsibility for the quality of your conversations and the conditions they are creating.
Personal mastery of the art of conversation goes beyond technical competence and skills. It is about character. I have come to this conclusion after decades of facilitating workshops to break the cycle of mistrust to re-establish open communication and alignment around priorities. No progress can be made until the people in the room decide to put ego aside, and listen with the idea that it is possible to be both right and wrong.
The Leadership Mind at Work in Conversation
I stated that mastering the art of conversation is about character. Peter Koestenbaum’s Leadership Diamond Model helps us to see why. The leadership mind has to master a complex balance of seemingly opposing values, which requires the discipline and will to examine our beliefs and assumptions.
The diamond itself represents the potential for success in an organization. Each of the quadrants represents a mind set or “reality” that contributes its growth. The dilemma is that these aspects often appear to be in opposition. On the left corner of the diamond sits the realist whose focus is facing financial reality and getting results. Across from the realist sits the visionary or seer. These two sit opposite of each other depicting the tension between the organization’s desire for quick profit (results) and its long-term vision.
In the top corner sits empathy. The primary concern of this mindset is people and values. Opposite to ethics sits the warrior leader whose courage supplies the will to make tough decisions, hold people accountable, and persevere in times of challenge. Sitting across from each other, there are times when the warrior’s actions appear to violate the ethical values of putting people first, while the warrior grows impatient with the empathetic leader who won’t make timely decisions while waiting to make sure no one is hurt or left out. These apparent conflicts are the challenge of the leader to manage. Managing them takes mastery in each of the four quadrants–seeing reality; visionary thinking; nurturing the people and values; and the courage or will to make and carry out choices–and using each strength at the right time.
Learning to Thrive in Uncertainty Makes for Better Results
Most leaders operate from the one quadrant where they feel most comfortable. Those who have mastered the art of conversation as a tool to facilitate collaboration, innovation and results sit in all four quadrants. Listening with an open mind to divergent ideas or “bad news” they are ready to move from quadrant to quadrant as needed. They don’t have to know all the answers because they trust others. They are comfortable in uncertainty because they know it is necessary to creativity. Playing it safe isn’t always an option. These tensions, however, can produce conflict, uncertainty, and anxiety. Skillful leadership conversations surface these anxieties and give people an opportunity to participate in designing the ultimate solutions.
Everyone would probably agree that true communication is an interactive activity. I would have to go one step further and add that there has to be a response or result from the conversation. In talking with a manager he shared with me that at one time union and management hated each other at his facility. They implemented a process where supervisors and managers began to engage with people on the floor to identify and mitigate hazards. After a few months he witnessed a transformation in employee management relations. He described it as “reconnecting the communication cables.”
In Conversation We Can Clarify Our Thoughts to Others and Seek to Understand Theirs
Peter Senge tells us personal mastery is not something you possess; it is a process. It is accomplished by 1) continually asking questions to see reality more clearly, and 2) clarifying what is important to us. These two points describe the conversation process.
Senge proposes that the first we make a commitment to understand and ask questions before giving information. You are trying to learn the truth according to the individual with whom you are engaged in conversation. This does not mean there is one “truth.” It means that we agree to question our perceptions and our theories of why things are the way they are. We begin to recognize that we carry “mental models” that filter our perceptions of reality and prevent us from seeing and selecting the best options to act upon.
The second point, clarifying what is important to us, is about self-awareness. Getting in touch with our values and feelings helps us explain the meaning of our words more clearly. Too often we rely on “facts,” and expect people to accept them as such. Facts, like statistics, can be interpreted in many different ways. If you take the time to explain the feelings and thinking behind your interpretation there is a much greater chance of connection and understanding.
Clarifying what is important to us and seeing reality more clearly are skills critical to building collaborative working relationships, but they are seldom taught in an intentional manner. Instead we hear people complain that the “real issues” are not discussed in business meetings . There is no clear sense of “where we are now or where we are going.” People wait till after a meeting to say what they really think or feel, causing a sense of perpetual frustration.
Are You Willing to Say What You Are Feeling or Really Thinking to Prevent the Team from Failing?
When meetings don’t work its usually because people aren’t talking about what they feel is important. Later, when something goes wrong, we find out someone had information that was needed to prevent that outcome. So why didn’t that person speak up?
Perhaps it isn’t always wise to say how you feel or what you are thinking in a meeting. Who wants to worry about the potential negative impact of speaking up? If someone does speak up, often the comment is overlooked and the more powerful person indicates it is time to move on. There is the frustration that nothing ever changes. Topics are brought up over and over again without resolution. Instead, why not try 1-1 conversations where you can reveal your thoughts and feelings and really listen to the other person’s perspective on an issue? You could find a lot more acceptance at the next meeting for your idea or concern.
Leaders, you are creating these conditions for ineffective communication. Chris Argyris, arguably the biggest contributor to modern business communication, published an HBR article stating that this status quo is nearly impossible to change. He called executive’s inability to speak up and communicate honestly “skilled-incompetence.” The skill is being good at not ruffling feathers–apparently a must for ascension to the higher positions. If the highest level of the organization can’t risk confrontation, why do we expect employees to speak up when they see peers working unsafely or breaking the law?
You Don’t Have to Wait for Someone Else to Act First
Thankfully we do not have the same limitations on the floor that we have in the boardroom. Employees simply need a supervisor, plant manager or functional leader who will have their backs and demonstrate that it is safe to speak up. How does mastering the art of conversation lead to fewer organizational failures? The first step is to make all levels of leadership aware that the way they react to information and mistakes is key to setting the tone for trust and open communication. If they are dismissive, defensive or critical, the communication will stop.
The second step is to provide some form of self-awareness and conversational skills training that they go out and practice daily. How will you know if it is done? Don’t institute a bureaucracy of checklists. Instead, bring it up at each meeting or gathering to discuss what worked or didn’t. The purpose of the conversation is to share and gather information about what is going on in the workplace. Was the conversation worthwhile? Don’t quit if participation is slow. People have to see that it is important and not going away.
Do Comment on This Post and Participate in the Conversation
I have specific ideas I’ve used for the conversation content and tips. If this approach appeals to you, email me firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also learn more about the leadership mindset listening to a podcast where I was interviewed by Andrew Barrett on the Eight Beliefs of Relationship Centered Leadership.